Piano teaching

Fingering schemes: help or hindrance?

“The most dangerous thing is ‘finger memory’; if you really know a piece harmonically, it doesn’t matter what finger you use, but if finger memory fails you, it falls apart utterly.” the late Peter Feuchtwanger, quoted in The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.

From our earliest time at the piano, we are taught a 5-finger position, and learn that consistent and carefully-thought out fingering schemes help us to get about the music comfortably and economically. It enables us to play legato or prestissimo – and everything in between. Fingering schemes are not set in stone, but once learnt, a scheme tends to stay in the fingers forever. A good fingering scheme informs the muscular memory, ensuring accuracy and fluency of playing. A good fingering scheme should be both logical and comfortable.

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I encourage my students to work out their own fingering schemes (with my guidance). Not only does this help them see how a logical scheme can be easily worked out, with the hands on the keyboard, it also encourages them to examine the music in more detail before they have had an initial play-through and to work out a fingering scheme which both logical and comfortable. Unfortunately, many piano students and even some teachers, believe that the fingering schemes set out in the music is set in stone and cannot be amended. This of course overlooks the fact that hands are different, and that there is no “one size fits all”. It’s always worth going through a piece with your student to see if the suggested fingering “work” – if it doesn’t, change it! The same is true of scale and arpeggio fingering – some of the “standard” fingering for these exercises can be very awkward, especially for the smaller hand. (For more on this, see Penelope Roskell’s excellent book The Art of Piano Fingering.)

When I approach a new piece of music myself, I will sight read it, just to get the “gist” of it, looking out for any pitfalls or particularly finger-twisting passages. Then I go back to the beginning and, with pencil behind my ear, embark on the detailed work of marking up the score.

Sometimes a specific fingering scheme can alter the mood or colour of the music. For example, at the opening of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor beginning with a third finger in both hands, and then switching silently to a fifth in the left hand, and a third to a thumb in the right gives a greater sense of forward motion in that figure as it rises so grandly up the register – almost a metaphoric rather than physical change. As we become more skilled at the piano, we begin to recognise a particular finger’s strengths and weaknesses; sometimes a change of finger on a particular note can transform the sound of that note.

I agree with what Peter Feuchtwanger says in the quote at the top of this post: knowing the piece harmonically is essential, and that harmonic knowledge goes hand in hand with good finger memory. If you combine the two successfully, there’s a good chance you’re going to play a piece fluently and accurately, and with the requisite attention to details such as dynamics, articulation, mood, colour, texture and contrast.

 

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